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Fantastical improves the Mac desktop calendar experience

Fantastical Main WindowCalendaring on the Mac has come a long way since I was using Palm Desktop on a 333 MHz iMac. iCal is the Mac OS default today, and it works well. There is room for improvement, however, and Fantastical takes a huge step in the right direction.

This handy app lives in your menu bar, providing quick access to your many appointments across calendars (including iCal or Outlook 2011). Fantastical supports incredibly rapid and natural full-text entry for appointments, making it easier than ever to get your events where you need them. It looks great, works well and is definitely worth your time. Read on for the full review.

Note: tomorrow I'll post a review of a competing product, Today by Second Gear Software. Then, on Thursday, we'll do a head-to-head shootout between Fantastical and Today.

UI

Whoever said, "Looks don't matter" truly didn't love software. An app's function is ultimately more important, but any app that's useful and beautiful is that much more appealing. Fantastical is such an app. Call it the Angelina Jolie of Mac calendar apps (or Brad Pitt, depending on your proclivities). There are so many UI niceties here, I'll run through them.

Little Things

When adding a new event, your plain-English description glides into place as you type. Two "staples" hold the top of the calendar in place. Pencil-sketch circles, color-coded to match the corresponding iCal calendar, encircle the current date. Mouse over a date and a tidy, Post-It style pop-up reveals that day's contents. Do the same in the event list and a color-coded "squiggle" appears on the corresponding calendar date above.

It's clear that Fantastical was built -- nay, birthed -- by a team that loves it. A half-interested "parent" wouldn't make the shadows in the event list just subtle enough to be noticeable but not overbearing. It's all presented in a handy rectangular UI that appears from an unobtrusive menu bar item when you need it, and retreats when you're done.

Putting it simply, Fantastical looks great. But how does it work?

Use

A calendar has two main functions. First, it's a catcher's mitt, and second it's a billboard. When I'm tasked with making a time-sensitive appointment, I record it on a calendar. That process must be as easy as possible, or I'll resist doing it. We humans lean towards lazy and typically choose the path of least resistance when possible (call it "friction-free" if that makes you feel better). Fantastical might be pretty, but if using it is a hassle, that won't matter.

A calendar is also a ubiquitous, reliable, at-a-glance reminder of what must be done and when. I want to call upon my calendar, review its holdings and return to my day with minimal fuss. Here's how Fantastical handles each role.

Data Entry - The Catcher's Mitt

There are two ways to record an appointment with Fantastical. To start, click the menu bar icon to bring up the main UI. Next, double-tap the appropriate date. The calendar slides down to reveal the text input screen. From there, type your event description in plain English. For example, "Meet Jamie at noon." You can also select the calendar to assign the event to, adjust alarm settings and invite attendees. When you're done, click Add Event or hit Return.

The second method is even simpler. Just select the text field and start typing, adding the date in plain English. For example, "Meet Jamie at noon on Monday." Again, click Add Event or click Return when you're done. Of course, both methods add the appointment to iCal as well.

Review - The Billboard

When it's time to review, I simply hit the custom key combination or click the menu bar item. I can choose how many days' worth of activities to show at once, scroll past those dates and choose the default calendar ("Work," for example). Click anywhere to bring up an event's details and click outside the Fantastical window (or repeat your key combination) to dismiss it. Get in and get out as quickly as possible, just like last-second shopping on Christmas Eve.

Options

The app's preferences offer many options to enhance your experience. For example, the general preferences let you choose either iCal or Outlook as the default calendar app. Additionally, you can choose a hotkey combination and fiddle with the menu bar icon, which displays the date plus weekday, date plus month or date alone.

Calendar options let you show/hide individual calendars ("Home" vs. "Work," for example) and determine how much time to show in the event list. The default is 7 days, but that can be fine-tuned to "Today" or "Next 20 Days."

The alarm options are quite handy. Basically, you get to determine what the default alarm will be (message, message with sound, email, open a file) for both timed events and all-day events. I typically like alarm plus sound at 30 minutes before an event occurs. Telling Fantastical my preference means I don't have to tweak that with every new event.

One Bummer

Once you create an event, you can't edit it further with Fantastical. Instead, you'll double-click the event to launch iCal or Outlook. Make your changes there, and they'll be reflected in Fantastical. Not a deal-breaker, but an inconvenience, especially once you fall for Fantastical's otherwise delightful convenience.

In conclusion, I say it's definitely worth your while. Fantastical looks fantastic (couldn't resist) and works quite well. Despite the editing issue, I recommend Fantastical. The 1.0 version is available now from the Mac App Store at US$14.99.

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